What’s really happening in the real world?
Over on AOPA.org recently, another in the very long line of drearily apocalyptic articles (rants, really) on the dangers of over-automation in light aircraft cockpits, was posted in a point-counterpoint format by Rod Machado, accomplished author and professional flight instructor, and George Perry, the Director of AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute. I say “point-counterpoint,” but their actual presentation was more “point-point” style, as in, both authors agreed that there is a VERY BIG DANGER posed by over-reliance on automation in the cockpit of light aircraft these days.
As I said above, this is yet another in a very long line of such Cassandra-style warnings to us lowly private pilots flying light aircraft. These warnings, besides being largely off-base (as I’ll describe in this essay), are getting to be really annoying to read in aviation journals that purport to speak to the private pilot population.
What’s rather silly about the Machado-Perry duet of Cassandras was that, to make their points about the dangers of private pilots over-relying on cockpit automation and technology, they cited as their scientific examples a dumb automobile driver who couldn’t figure out how to open her car door without a functioning remote keyless entry (A car driver? As a good example of today’s airplane pilots? C’mon, Rod… really?), while the other writer cited the dreary oft-told tale of Asiana Flight 214 and the three professional airline pilots on the flight deck who, between them, were too incompetent to land an airliner, filled with human passengers, no less, on a CAVU VFR day on a long runway with a functioning lighted visual glideslope system.
I immediately sent an email to George Perry with my comments on their “point-point” storyline, essentially taking issue on the following main points (which in response to me, he disagreed), including:
- You’re writing for a membership that is composed mostly of private pilots flying light aircraft, most of which are not nearly as automated as turbine-powered commercial airliners, with most of us flying mostly single pilot. So why are airline accidents constantly and almost exclusively referenced as the proof that over-automation is killing private pilots in light aircraft? As Robby the Robot used to say on those old Lost in Space TV episodes, “That does not compute, Will Robinson!”
- The actual accident data show that general aviation safety has improved steadily and substantially over the approximate 15-year timeframe over which the limited amount of automation and technology has become available in a significant proportion of the light aircraft fleet in the USA. The dawn of light aircraft advanced cockpit technology really took off (pardon the pun) with the introduction at the end of the 1990s of the Garmin panel-mounted 430/530 series IFR certified moving map GPS navigators coupled with modern digital autopilots. All-glass production aircraft like the popular Cirrus SR 22 and others accelerated the implementation of advanced technology in light aircraft. Most older legacy aircraft are still limited in such technology today, but partial updates are gradually spreading throughout the fleet. According to the latest Nall Report, we have experienced some rather impressive results in terms of steadily decreasing GA accidents and fatalities, both in raw numbers and in estimated accident rates (based upon estimated flight hours). The bottom line is that GA accident rates and fatality rates decreased by somewhere between 10-40% over that 15-year timeframe, depending on which stats you’re citing. The most recent fatal accident rate computed by Nall finally broke through the 1.0 barrier (0.99) in 2013.
- There are no published accident data that report or demonstrate that use of automation or technology by private pilots systematically causes lots of us to misuse or over-use technology, since there are no cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders installed in most light aircraft to collect such data. So when writers and ranters talk about private pilots over- or mis-using cockpit technology in light aircraft, they are only repeating their own biases and opinions, because they have no data to back up their rants. Hence they default to citing a handful of airline accidents. In fact, given the steadily and substantially decreasing accidents in GA during the same period in which advanced technology and automation began to enter the light aircraft fleet in large numbers, the data seems to suggest that just the opposite phenomenon may be going on.
If anything, review of individual GA accidents in the NTSB database and the Nall Reports seem to indicate that rather frequently, pilots who don’t use the technology that is available to them tend to die needlessly. A famous example of that scenario was John F. Kennedy Jr. who flew himself, his (at the time) advanced technology, autopilot-equipped Piper PA 32R, and his unfortunate wife and sister-in-law into the sea during a hazy summer evening, when simply engaging his autopilot almost certainly would have saved the day, and three lives.
Many more examples of under-use of technology come from the accident records – and the response to same – of Cirrus SR 22 owners who declined to avail themselves of both the advanced automation features of their glass panel aircraft and/or of the airframe CAPS parachutes. Both the airframe manufacturer and the Cirrus type owners’ association worked together to study the problem, and as a result created and promoted Cirrus type training to encourage familiarity with the aircraft’s systems and capabilities, and the correct use of the CAPS parachute (“Pull early, and pull often!”). As a result, the fatal accident rate in that type dropped dramatically in only a few years. It turns out that advanced technology really DOES save lives – if the pilot is prepared to use it.
Now, for those who would argue counter to this point that some pilots actually do crash their airplanes because they were playing with the knobs and buttons instead of flying the airplane, or through mental atrophy somehow forgot how to fly the airplane, then I would not argue that such accidents never happen. Of course such accidents almost certainly do happen. But the key question here is: How many such accidents happen each year due to excessive reliance on advanced technology, as compared to the number of accidents that are avoided (most of which are never reported to the government) because the pilot had and used advanced aviation technology?
That is, unfortunately, an unknowable answer, given that almost no light aircraft have cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders. So the only real data that we have to go with are the bottom line accident frequency data. And those numbers suggest a pretty clear correlation, if not causality, between advancing technology (and training to use it) and contracting accident rates.
Back to the notion of using the technology we have, and not just relying on it being in or on the aircraft, the same principle also applies to basic aircraft technology too, not just the advanced stuff. For example, your airplane (with one or two exceptions) has rudder pedals as part of its flight control system, but it’s amazing how many pilots forget they’re there. All too often, pilots either don’t use the rudder at all, or they try to use the rudder for a purpose that is incorrect, such as attempting to apply excessive rudder to make the infamous crosswind, skidding base to final turn, instead of using coordinated ailerons and rudder… the result of which is all too often an unfortunate spin into the dirt from low altitude. Or when a pilot, in the middle of a stall at a high angle of attack, tries to use aggressive aileron deflection to control roll instead of the rudder, and inadvertently puts their aircraft into a spin.
Actually, when it comes to technology, there isn’t any part of an airplane that doesn’t constitute “technology,” since none of us were born with wings, feathers, and tails. So those pilot writers ranting and warning against “over-reliance on technology” are actually arguing counter to the very notion of human flight itself. Human flight is advanced technology.
The “tech is a trap” crowd and their claims that “too much technology is making us pilots into useless blobs of unthinking flesh“ virtually always cite the same three or four commercial airline accidents to make their points. But of course we all know that commercial airline flying is very little like private aviation flying in light aircraft.
For one thing, by rule commercial airliners today require two pilots in the cockpit, thus providing at least redundant “human technology” to aid the pilot in command. Also, the airlines employ and enforce detailed standard operating procedures that must be submitted to the FAA that dictate the use of autopilots and other technology most of the time on most flights. For instance, most pilots of the “big iron” are required to be on autopilot for all operations in the RVSM flight levels (FL300 and above), which is where most airline flights spend most of their time. Also, airline SOPs often require that autopilots and autothrottles be used for most approaches to landing. And of course, by both FAR and airline SOPs, only autopilot-guided approaches are allowed on Cat III ILS landings. So the natural result of these rules is that most airline pilots get relatively little hand-flying experience compared to most light aircraft pilots.
Additionally, it’s also difficult to get in much real stick and rudder flying on the real transport aircraft since most of the time the airlines want paying passengers on board who for obvious reasons would not want to be subjected to steep turns, the stall series, touch and goes, short field landings, etc. that we private pilots in light aircraft are free to do as we choose (and which the smart ones regularly practice in order to keep up our piloting skills).
Yet the tech-is-a-trap Cassandras generally ignore the actual facts and circumstances of the airline accidents which do not support their theories of “over automation” as applicable to private pilots in light aircraft. A frequently mentioned accident for this topic of automation is Colgan Flight 3407 (cited by Machado in his AOPA piece), in the context of the pilot in command making an error with respect to how he controlled the aircraft as it approached a stall during an approach to landing. However, it also was revealed during the accident investigation that the accident pilot had a rather blemished record as a professional pilot, including multiple failed check flights, which indicates that there was likely an issue with his piloting competency.
I don’t really care how much automation is on a plane I’m riding as passenger, but if I were aware that a pilot like him was at the controls… then I’m not boarding! The NTSB cited several principal contributing factors for the Colgan accident, but contrary to common sense, the bureaucrats seemed to pin the blame mostly on pilot fatigue and lack of pilot training, which is a way of pointing the finger at the airline rather than at the individual pilot in command. It may sound harsh to say this, but though the PIC may be dead now, so are his passengers and first officer… his own death doesn’t absolve him of being a bad pilot.
Another prototypical accident cited by the “over-automation/over technology” ranters – again, this is a commercial flight – is Asiana 214 (cited by Perry in his AOPA piece), whose flight deck crew, including a check pilot, between them could not land a perfectly functional airplane on a CAVU VFR day using a perfectly functioning lighted glideslope system when the ILS was temporarily out of service. The NTSB pointed the finger at over-automation, but I think they have it bass-ackwards. If you can’t fly the airplane at all – because, if you can’t land in CAVU daytime VFR, then you’re not relying too much on automation, you’re relying entirely on automation – then you have no business being allowed anywhere near the cockpit, in my humble opinion.
Another prototypical commercial air accident often cited in the anti-tech screeds is Air France 447, wherein an apparently incompetent flight deck crew could not handle a temporary loss of airspeed indication, and promptly stalled their perfectly airworthy aircraft all the way down from FL370 to the sea, with the pilot flying holding his sidestick all the way aft to the stops throughout nearly the entire accident sequence. What kind of over-reliance on tech causes any trained and certified pilot to believe that continuously holding the stick all the way aft to the stops is EVER a good flight technique, except in a full-stall landing from a couple feet above the runway?
What the tech-is-a-trap writers ignore is that the relatively inexperienced Air France first officer and pilot flying, prior to the accident sequence, had attempted repeatedly to obtain the permission of his captain to climb the aircraft to get above a line of thunderstorms painted ahead on the cockpit radar display as the flight entered the tropical convergence zone. The captain repeatedly denied his co-pilot’s requests to climb until he finally retired to the sleeping cabin, while an underqualified (non-captain) relief pilot took his left seat.
Then, moments later, when icing in the clouds temporarily disabled the airspeed indicators, which in turn disengaged the autopilot, the pilot flying in the right seat almost immediately began his desired escape to higher altitude by yanking on his stick. In short order, he inevitably stalled the aircraft, and kept it there in a steep nose-up attitude nearly the entire trip down to the ocean surface. If the PF had simply kept his hand off the sidestick, the accident sequence would never have begun.
That was not an example of over-reliance on automation – that was, rather, an apparent case of fear-inspired temporary insanity, and a case of very bad piloting, done contrary to any and all pilot instruction ever given. It appears that the PF’s actions were driven by one man’s extreme fear of thunderstorms. Being afraid of thunderstorms is, of course, a healthy fear for any pilot… but not so to the extent that it causes a pilot to completely ignore the laws of aerodynamics, with fatal consequences for all souls on board.
So basically, this business of confusing apparent instances of piloting incompetence with over-reliance on technology, as a practical warning to us light aircraft pilots, is simply not useful at all. This line of thinking and argument combines scenarios that are not alike and not at all relevant to our flying, and misses the important lessons for all. The end game of this argument actually creates a detrimental result in terms of attitudes toward flight safety.
The effect of these constant warnings against over-reliance on aviation advanced technology is to perversely discourage pilots from taking advantage of the real advances in aircraft cockpit technology that are proven to improve our safety of flight. That is, if they do not discourage private flying altogether. The logical inference of all these “technology is a trap” warnings is, well…
“What the heck? If no matter what we do to try to make private flying safer, it is not accomplishing anything useful, then to heck with it! If I care about saving my own skin, maybe I should stop flying altogether, or at least, maybe I need to avoid spending any more money to upgrade my aircraft.”
That is NOT the message that we private pilots need to take from the actual real world data. The real lessons for us light aircraft pilots are as follows:
- Advanced technology, both preflight and in the cockpit, is making flying significantly safer, especially for us private pilots who mostly fly single pilot, with no competent co-pilot to help us collect and analyze flight information, help us make better decisions, and help take the mental load off the PIC.
- Advanced aviation technology is not just autopilots or autothrottles connected to GPS navigators. Advanced technology is the full gamut of technology including pre-flight planning software and hardware; autopilots; GPS nav units, both panel mount and portable; ADS-B in and out with weather and traffic; satellite cockpit weather; radar; fuel, terrain, altitude, and traffic alerters; satellite position beacons; engine monitor systems; synthetic terrain vision systems; fail-safe “sunny side up” attitude recovery systems and “auto land” and “auto descend” systems for incapacitated pilots; airframe parachutes; backup attitude instruments; and a whole host of other safety related and flight management stuff, some of which we haven’t even imagined just yet. Most of these technology-based pilot aids are designed to help make up for the fact that most of us don’t have co-pilots and their extra set of eyes, ears, brains, hands and feet to supplement our “single point failure” human systems. Some of these gizmos also greatly improve our situational awareness. And the portable electronics are so cheap compared to certified avionics that redundancy of key flight systems is practically available to virtually all pilots today. In the air, redundancy is our friend.
- Some of these techno gizmos are very pricey additions to light aircraft, while others are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. So not all of these technologies will be equally distributed through the fleet. We aircraft owners and pilots will need to make our own personal calculations of value added vs. cost for each gizmo, and decide accordingly which to employ. The decisions will often be based upon what kind of flying we do, and our available budget, and also the type of aircraft we fly. However, just about anyone who can afford to fly an airplane can also afford to buy a tablet computer and the apps necessary for moving map GPS displays, and most recently, Bluetooth-connected ADS-B in traffic and weather displays, and even backup AHRS and synthetic vision displays. A single axis digital autopilot is not cheap, but at around $10-15K installed and coupled with a GPS and/or navcom, it can literally be a lifesaver and a routine convenience to those of us flying single pilot. Having a portable GPS at hand is a popular addition even to old Stinsons and Stearmans if you ever leave the traffic pattern at the local airport. A 406 Mhz or other satellite personal locator beacon can be a real lifesaver in the event of an off-airport forced landing, because surviving the landing itself doesn’t necessarily save your life in challenging environmental conditions or when you urgently need medical care.
- The more techno aids we single pilots have available to help out in pre-flight planning and on the flight deck, the more likely we are to avoid an accident. That’s because we pilots are single point failure human systems, and as such we are entirely fallible and subject to making dozens of errors per hour on the ground and in the air. Making errors is part of being a human. Pretending that we are all Super Men and Super Women who never need a hand in challenging times is mere puffery and the ego talking, not common sense. If we always had a qualified co-pilot to help out, and if we diligently used well-defined crew resource management techniques, then the need for high tech in light aircraft flying would be less (but not zero), but alas, most of us don’t. Even if we have a qualified co-pilot, he or she is equally subject to making errors. There is no such thing as having too many checks, reminders, and backup systems once we’re in the air.
- Despite all of the advantages that advanced flight technology offers, there is still no substitute for having and continuously maintaining basic pilot skills, no matter how much technology we have available to assist us. If you can’t safely take off or land the airplane, or if you can’t perform basic flight maneuvers, then you better get some flight instruction and start practicing ASAP. If you don’t want to do that, then stop pretending you’re a competent pilot.
In closing, let me say that aviation writers like Machado and Perry and others who’ve written on this topic are only trying to help pilots avoid letting their piloting skills lapse, and those intentions are just fine as far as they go. But their arguments are theoretical rather than data-based, and misdirected to private pilots in light aircraft. Additionally, their arguments seem to avoid the logical conclusion, which is, “Learn to fly well the aircraft you fly, however it is equipped,” and instead seem to suggest in the main that technology is a trap.
Effectively discouraging the adoption and use of safety-related advanced technology by light aircraft pilots is, unfortunately, an artifact of their truncated line of argument. And it also tends to feed the meme that we see over and over again in our culture these days, which is to always blame others – be they companies, the government, anyone with deep pockets, including technology itself – for our own failings. “Hey, the technology made me lazy, so it’s not really my fault.” As Machado wrote, “Generally speaking, technology either liberates us, or enslaves us by increasing our dependence on its use.”
Sorry, the buck stops here with us pilots. Technology doesn’t make us do anything, or enslave us. When we sign up to be aircraft pilots in command, we elect to use technology. We become solely responsible for flying the airplane, and for the safety of the flights that we conduct.
If we have a lot of automation available in our airplane – while acknowledging that most of us flying light aircraft don’t – then it is our responsibility to maintain our ability to fly the aircraft both with and without the advanced technology. It is our fault alone if we allow our flying skills to atrophy through lack of practice. Just as it is our fault alone if we don’t bother to learn how to use the technology available in our cockpits to make our flying safer.